We are family?

Thursday night at the phenomenal Girl Talk: A Cis & Trans Woman Dialogue, curated by Julia Serano and Gina de Vries, Ryka Aoki de la Cruz talked about family, about how if we’re family how can we ‘outreach’ to each other? Families who’ve been separated have reunions, not outreach — it was brilliant (as were each of the other performances shared at that show) and of course there were many more points she made and images she shared in her piece…

And this one, though, sticks in me — sticks in my troubles — the way performers talk about family sometimes, how we should treat each other more like family, meaning we should treat each other better, more kindly, with more open hearts, right? I guess that’s how my inside hopeful heartsick places interpret that phrase.

But I think we do treat each other like family, already, unfortunately. ‘Cause what are our experiences of family? We drop one another when it’s expedient, we shut each other out and off. We take sexual advantage and then turn our backs. Isn’t that family?

I get tired (and by tired I mean heartbroken-sad) of hearing about family like it should be understandable, like by referencing family as a metaphor for unconditional-yet-complicated love and acceptance, I will understand what that means. But I don’t. My history of family is retracted love, pure and unabashed abandonment, extremely painful attempts at reconnection across severed ties — and now we’re supposed to make family together, you and me, we in these queer communities, and family, to me, looks like the horrifying inbred, yes, incestuous (and I use that metaphor deliberately) difficult raw puritanical stuff we have created and find ourselves struggling against.

‘Cause I understand what she’s talking about (how we don’t outreach to family — so how are you going to talk about ‘outreaching’ to queer folks of color, for example, to transwomen, to the others who are ‘underrepresented’ at the mainstream white queer gatherings that many of us find ourselves participating in), and I love it with all the inside webs of my heart.

But/And, also — we need a different word.

I understand about needing replacements, about using and reclaiming ‘family’ to mean queer sisterbrothers and brothersisters, but we bring with that word all the baggage that shaped us crooked and raw and bent and ashamed and scarred. We carry into that word, and this new collection of people we’re trying to connect with, all the pain that that word learned to bear, all the while we were learning to keep ourselves alive within its bounds, until it was gone.

How do we make ‘family’ good? How can we engender that word into something worthwhile, settle into it with a sense of hope instead of trepidation? You say we are family — to me that means there is no hope between us, no common language, a warped tongue, an indelible severing. That’s where I grow out of.

Not outreach but reunion. Maybe this truth of family is the way of all of us, and reunion will be painful alongside possible, as much as when I return to my blood family and see the shapes that crafted me and feel cup around my face each pair of arms and every set of hands that released me into the grip of a monster. Is that how we feel each other — that we sisters and brothers and others haven’t stood up for each other enough, haven’t protected each other enough, haven’t sent enough letters or enough I Miss You cards, or called enough to hear how your life is, to hear how he blessedness flows and hear how the hurts hit you and how can I share in both?

I don’t do those parts very well, I’ll admit it, the reaching out. She says we don’t outreach to family, and I get her meaning, and and and — I always feel like it’s an outreach when I try to touch anyone with a tie to my insides: old friends, blood family — a tentative feeling those lines: Are we still connected? Have you dropped me yet?

More and more thinking on this to come … so many thanks to you, Ryka, for these considerations, this possibility, your words!

2 responses to “We are family?

  1. *hug* one of the best things about being a poet is that i work with metaphor, or in this case, synecdoche.

    we are family. we are not family. we have many relationships other than familial, but i feel family highlights and emphasizes what is lacking in so many of our interactions with people we respect and love. perhaps other, more accurate and precise words might be coined, but i am so glad that i was able to use even an old-fashioned term like family to get us thinking and feeling. :)

    thank you for your kind words! see you soon, i hope!

  2. Hey Jen, Thanks for your post! This is something that I talked to Ryka about afterwards, as it was the subject of the thinkPhilosophy salon that I ran this week on "What is Queer Kinship?" Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

    I believe that it is hard to disentangle queer community from queer kinship or family because historically, queer communities have stood in for families lost, forsaken, or otherwise absent; once you start listening for it, the conflation of community and family is everywhere! But I think these two are different in some very significant ways, and that it is time for us to think this through, as a community; because, unfortunately, a community that acts like a family is dysfunctional, in the sense that it cannot satisfy the need for community.

    Some major differences I have thought about: Community thrives on "dissensus" (a combination of dissent and consensus, coined my Ewa Zierek) and diversity. We need to be able to work (politically, for example) with people with whom we may not see eye to eye on some important things; or even just with people whose queer practices are not your own and do nothing special for you … are not meaningful to you. In communities we can value diversity and openness; it is when communities close in on themselves that they start to die. Also, communities tend to be grounded in particular places, time periods, and cultural practices, so they are bound in ways that are material, concrete, and contingent.

    Queer kinship, which may or may not resemble "family," favors intimacy, proximity, affinity, sameness, agreement, and shared "core" values. And kinship can cross time and place, or is not bound in the same ways that community is. I may claim a kinship to Oscar Wilde, say, but he is not a part of my community/ies. Finally, kinship is less porous and more stable, with a different kind of intensity, and manifesting different kinds of love.

    At the tPhilosophy salon last Monday, I was hoping that we could get to this, and to finding a word for what this is, this need not just for community, but for kinship with people to whom we feel especially drawn. While some of us can live outside of LGBT or Queer communities (not well, in my opinion) – for example in so far as we assimilate individually or in the mainstreaming our communities- not establishing explicit and celebrated kinship bonds becomes a life threatening situation, especially the older one becomes and the less relevant much of what is taken as lgbt or queer "culture" becomes….

    Finally, we can learn a lot about alternate kinship structures (not just family structures) from people of color, immigrants, and transient or nomadic peoples. Moreover, we already have these sorts of alternate kinship bonds; they are already real. We only need to name them, and then I suspect that we will start to see them everywhere, doing the work of love, alongside our communities.

    I will be posting a blog about my experience at Monday's salon at thinkPhilosophy.org, and will be publishing a piece "On Queer Kinship, Community, and Friendship" (hopefully it will be out) in the Fall.